- Jan 15, 2009
Riding into Laurel, Montana, last winter was cold and lonely.
I had ridden in on a pusher locomotive unit on a coal train and got off at rail mile-marker 11 on Montana Rail Link property just east of town. (MRL is short for Montana Rail Link).
I walked to an old FTRA camp that I used to catch out in years past. Since most FTRA camps have been empty since the late-1990's, I really did not have to worry about any type of confrontation happening at the camp.
The FTRA had been blamed for countless murders, robberies, property damage and deadly assaults during their existence. The FTRA I have met in the past had always kept their cool with me, and I can't say if I believe they are personally responsible for any bad things, they just seemed to have gotten the blame for most of it. There were ones who thought they were FTRA, but they were not! They had been ragged and tagged by the wrong crews of wannabe's! Even I had offers to join their click many times, but always found a way to change the subject to avoid getting "initiated"!
As I approached the jungle, I called out, "Tramp Walking"!
No reply was given, as most camps now are cold and empty, with grass growing up high alongside rusted chili cans and logo-less glass beer bottles.
I still, one slow step at a time, walked into the FTRA camp where the BNSF right-of-way meets the MRL right-of-way. This is where you catch out and go to Great Falls at the diamond east of MRL's yard.
The quietness leaked through the distilled breeze as stout as BBQ beef on your neighbor's backyard grill! I was all alone once again just begging in my mind to run across another hobo!
I looked around camp for a possible bush-beater or two. After not seeing any, I hid my backpack nearby then left the frigid camp toward town.
There is a small truck stop across the irrigation-canal on the south side of MRL's mainline, it was just too much of a hassle to try to balance across a LPG pipe-line that crossed the canal to make it to the other side, so I decided to limp into town walking alongside Business 212's shoulder.
I reached town two miles further and checked the local thrift store for an aluminum coffee pot. With no luck, I walked the irrigation canal bridge that ran through town. I reached Laurel's main grocery store to the west end of the MRL yard.
I had seen several railroad monikers of previous hoboes, tramps, and hitchhikers that were severely faded from Montana's relentless wind, dust, rain, and sun. I took out my paint pen and freshly tagged, "Shoestring", where I had the year before. I walked into the store, took my beanie cap, gloves and coat off. As I strolled down the isles, I grabbed bacon, pork sausage, six pack eggs, paid for the items and walked back outside the store where I warmly dressed again.
On my walk back to camp, I crossed the MRL mainline near the town's park. I ran into big, fat ass "Lock 'em down Bill"! MRL has a "Rent-a-bull" who stays at the old Great Northern Motel, where railroad employees used to spend their crew change nights before being put back on another freight train. He remembered me, having caught me countless times over the years before. Lock 'em down Bill is a very large, but gentle man. He asked how I got into town. I told him the truth, knowing he already knew. He gave me a warning ticket and let me go about my way once again.
After getting back to camp and eating a hot meal next to my warm fire, Bill drove up to my camp. He then got out and shot the breeze with me for a few minutes.
He asked, who, if and when I had ran into other train riders. I told him this time of year, as he knew, there were not too many travelers here during winter's wrath. I was getting ready to bed down and go to sleep and also wanted to be alone, so I told him if that's all he wanted to know, then I would try and sleep some and goodbye. He then told me he wanted for me to keep an eye out and to be safe. He knew he couldn't ask me to leave, because my camp was on BNSF property which was out of his jurisdiction. He then squeezed his fat ass between the steering wheel and the seat-back and into his truck and left. I had often felt sorry for Bill, being that he always seemed so lonely, after all, he was nice enough to want to talk to me out of curiosity. I was able to fall to sleep soon afterward.
I had only been asleep for about two hours when a mixed freight train bound for Great Falls slugged its way out of the yard. My hands and fingers were so cold! It took me two whole minutes to get my bed roll back inside my duffel bag! A grain car came rolling around the curve at 10 mph. The adrenalin started warming the arteries in my neck! I ran as fast as I could next to the train! I grasped the second slat on the grainer ladder then pulled myself up, then placed my knees on the bottom slat! I was on.
After riding the frigid steel for 45 minutes without rolling out my bed roll, we stopped in the hold to wait on another southbound train. Skipping like a jittery high-paced crack head down the tracks, I made my way toward the locomotive units. I was eight rail cars from the rear locomotive unit! I saw the southbound train's headlight heading south toward me, so I crawled up onto a front facing grainer and hid until the train passed. We aired up and took off before I had the chance to make it further toward the warm rear locomotive unit!
What a freezing ride! Riding frontward for about ten minutes, I could not take the cold any more! I crawled up the ladder to the top of the grainer then walked down the cat-walk to the next rail car in front! I jumped to the next grainer in front of the one before, then again, and again, and again, until I reached the very first rail car on the lead end of the train! Looking through every foggy breath I exhaled and watery tear-stained eyes, I crawled down the ladder, hopped over onto the rear locomotive unit then opened the door and got inside its warm cab!
It was warm inside, even though the heat was off. I opened the control panel to the circuit breakers and popped open all four heater breaker switches and viola! Heat at last! I now had two helpers heaters blasting as well as two auxilliary sidewall heaters!
After thawing out, I was nearing city limits of Great Falls. I got off at the south end of the yards and made camp again at another old FTRA campsite. It too had been abandoned for quite some time.
That's just the thing, the FTRA that I knew in the late 1980's and early 1990's have either gone to prison, died of old age, or had passed on from complications of liver failure due to excessive alcohol consumption.
One thing you absolutely can count on while out on the rails is change. Things are good in some way or another for a while, they then change, and you either change yourself to meet that change, or stay the same and miss the way things were.
What I'm trying to say is, places, like people, change. You really miss the way things were. I wish I could go back and ride trains when there were no less than a dozen people at one said camp waiting to catch out. You sat by your camp fire telling stories, sharing experiences all while gazing over the stars in the beautiful night sky, while wondering where your next freight train would bring you, and where your next camp full of real true hoboes would be.